Uganda’s English language policy isn’t applicable to schools in the the country’s rural areas. Shutterstock

Uganda’s English language policy is failing rural children

Uganda’s language policy requires that rural schools should choose a dominant local language to use as the language of learning and teaching for the first three years of primary school while English is taught as a subject. The fourth year of schooling is a transitional year in which English as the language of learning and teaching is introduced. English then becomes the medium of instruction.

Uganda’s English language policy isn’t applicable to schools in the the country’s rural areas. Shutterstock
Uganda’s English language policy isn’t applicable to schools in the the country’s rural areas. Shutterstock

In areas where it’s not easy to choose a dominant language, as is the case in urban schools, English as the medium of instruction is recommended.

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We investigated the circumstances under which children learn and acquire English in central Uganda’s rural Rakai district.

We set questions related to the learning and teaching support materials for English, the challenges rural Ugandan learners face in learning English, the differences between government and private schools on vocabulary teaching and learning as well as opportunities available for learners to acquire English in rural schools.

We conducted the study in 2012 in four rural schools. The results of this study are still relevant because the language-in-education policy hasn’t changed. Teacher training and curricula are also still the same.

We found that learners faced various challenges in learning and acquiring English. It was difficult for them to reach the vocabulary levels set out by the country’s National Curriculum Development Centre. For example, they are expected to learn at least 800 English words after three years.


The essence of the mother tongue policy was partly to enhance the teaching and learning of English in Uganda. But our findings point to a host of difficulties faced by learners in private and government schools. We conclude that Uganda needs to rethink how English is taught in rural contexts. In addition, the time of transition to English as a language of learning and teaching should be reconsidered.

A difficult subject

Studies show that vocabulary is a crucial element in reading and comprehension. According to some studies, learners of English need knowledge of the 3000 most frequent words to read and understand graded readers.

But nobody has studied whether that is realistic in poorly resourced learning environments, such as those in Uganda.

The curriculum development centre also considers “words” when speaking about vocabulary learning. However, studies refer instead to word families – “the word and all its inflected and derived forms”, counted as one.

In Africa, there are numerous studies of language-in-education policies. But there is a shortage of research on vocabulary learning in both first and second languages.

As far as we know ours is the first study in Uganda that evaluated the number of words children acquire in the process of learning English.

How English is taught

The curriculum development centre set guidelines on how English should be taught from grade 1 to grade 3. It suggested presenting at least five new words every day, using short dialogues, presenting new sentence structures, pictures and wall charts, and using songs, games, acting, rhymes, exercises and speech.

The centre discourages teachers from using learners’ mother tongues while teaching English – an approach not supported by research.

The centre expects the curriculum to be well-structured and supported by appropriate materials. But teachers in our study viewed the curriculum as poorly structured, repetitive and inadequate. They said they didn’t have the right materials and that learners weren’t able to learn the desired vocabulary in each school year.


We didn’t see recommended methods like role play and speeches being used. Instead, teachers asked learners to read after them and to chorus.

Another challenge we encountered related to training. The National Curriculum Development Centre recommends a one-teacher-one-classroom policy. So there is no specialist English teacher for grades 1 to 3.

State schools versus private school

Teachers also pointed to a big disparity between schools funded by the state and private schools – for example, in the materials provided and in exposure to English.

In private schools, it’s compulsory for all children to speak English at school all the time. But government school learners only encountered the language in English lessons.

Also, children in private pre-primary schools encounter English learning at the age of 3 or 4 while those in government schools do so only at 6 (when they join grade 1).

It was clear from our classroom observations that the two sets of learners were at different levels of communicative English. Those in private schools were able to answer questions posed by the teachers while those in government schools found responding in English challenging. Some learners in government schools responded in Luganda (their mother tongue) to questions posed to them in English.

We saw that teachers used their class time differently. The curriculum development centre guidelines stipulate that English lessons last 30 minutes. But those in private schools were between 40 to 60 minutes. Government school teachers were also less punctual.

Going forward

We conclude that the targets set by the curriculum development centre need reviewing for two reasons. The first is that they are unrealistic, given the environment in which English is being taught in rural Uganda. The second is that they fall below what’s required for a learner to be able to comprehend English texts and access the curriculum in English.


The recommended two years to acquire basic communicative skills and four years to acquire cognitive and academic language proficiency is only possible in well-resourced environments. Our study shows that children in rural Ugandan schools can’t acquire these in three years only.

There are broader issues to consider too. Learners need more time to be exposed to the language before they can learn through it. But children in government schools mostly use their mother tongues and aren’t exposed to media in English. Moreover, teachers in rural areas are not very proficient in English.

The government needs to review the policy. It also needs to employ qualified and specialised teachers in English language and support materials for English need to be thoroughly evaluated.

Bloomgist In-depth: Confessions by hit Squad of former Gambia president – Yahya Jammeh

Gambian reporters manage a live feed of the nation’s truth and reconciliation hearings.CreditCreditYagazie Emezi for The New York Times

SEREKUNDA, Gambia — The day Malick Jatta confessed to shooting one of Gambia’s best-known journalists, he wore the camouflage uniform of the armed forces and said the kill order came right from the former president. The testimony was streamed live, and tens of thousands watched.

“I’m sorry,” he said. Then he hung his head.

Gambia, a nation of two million people on the West African coast, is in the midst of a highly public truth and reconciliation commission designed to investigate atrocities committed during the 22-year reign of Yahya Jammeh, a leader who created a culture of fear and misinformation so deep that many still take care to call him a gentleman.

Two years after Mr. Jammeh lost an election and fled, investigators are holding what some experts have hailed as the most accessible truth commission in history. Officials have been methodically interviewing killers and victims, eliciting testimony into the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of people. Central to their effort is a live feed that sends that testimony through YouTubeFacebook, television and radio — directly into phones and homes around the country.

In Gambia, an overwhelmingly young and quickly urbanizing nation that now has one of the highest rates of mobile phone use in Africa, listeners stretch from the capital, Banjul, into the countryside and abroad to the diaspora. Many have been devastated by the testimony; others doubt its veracity.

A market in Serekunda, where many business owners, and their customers, are glued to the hearings.CreditYagazie Emezi for The New York Times

But for all the excitement about the stream, some Gambians are questioning whether simply hearing the truth will be enough to deliver justice. It’s unclear if the commission will lead to trial or prison for perpetrators. Admitted killers are being released after their testimony. Mr. Jammeh is in exile, and no one knows if he will ever be prosecuted.

For Baba Hydara, the son of the Deyda Hydara, the murdered journalist, the confessions have brought only hollow relief.

“They say that it helps with closure,” he said. “That’s a lie.”

What he wants is to see his father’s killers before a judge.

Malick Jatta, in green, admits to his role in the killing of journalist Deyda Hydara.CreditCreditVideo by QTV Gambia

The truth and reconciliation hearings began in January and are expected to last two years. Witnesses are testifying in English and local languages, including Mandinka and Wolof; a sign language interpreter follows along.

Some of the most searing testimony has come this summer. Mr. Jatta and other members of Mr. Jammeh’s hit squad, called “the junglers,” have told of the murder of Mr. Hydara, an influential editor who the regime code-named “Magic Pen.”

They’ve confessed to the killing of 56 West African migrants whom the government accused of being mercenaries.

And they’ve admitted to taking part in the assassinations of two American citizens, Alhagie Ceesay and Ebou Jobe, who the junglers were told were plotting a coup.

Mr. Ceesay, a father of two, was a Chevron employee who had been living in Houston; Mr. Jobe, a father of three, was an operations manager for Wal-Mart.

“They have to be in prison,” said Ya Mamie Ceesay, 67, whose son was one of two Gambian-Americans to disappear in 2013. “You cannot kill someone, take someone’s life, and then go free.”CreditYagazie Emezi for The New York Times

Mr. Ceesay’s family has said that they had returned to their native Gambia to start a business.

Cameras rolling, one member of the hit squad, Omar Jallow, testified that Mr. Jammeh had ordered that the Americans be killed and “chopped into pieces.”

Mr. Jallow described how his team “took plastic bags and they put them over their heads and they strangulated them.”

Two junglers “cut off their heads,” he went on. “We took them and put them inside the grave and we buried them.”

A representative for Mr. Jammeh hung up the phone when called for comment.

Mr. Jammeh, who was Gambia’s second president since the country gained independence from Britain, took power in 1994 following a coup, and went on to win four presidential elections. His supporters hailed him for bringing roads, lights and education to areas in need.

The former President Yahyah Jammeh waved to a crowd of supporters before leaving the country in 2017.CreditAndrew Renneisen/Getty Images

But he also jailed dissidents and called journalists the “illegitimate sons of Africa.” He subjected Gambian AIDS patients to a self-proclaimed cure — a body rub and a banana. He sent his soldiers to hunt down people he accused of being sorcerers. He raped a former beauty queen named Fatou Jallow, according to her testimony, and he coerced other women into sex with cash, gifts and privileges, according to former officials.

Over time, his claims became so wild that the truth seemed to simply disappear.

Gambians voted Mr. Jammeh out in 2016 and after refusing to accept the results for weeks, he finally fled, only to reappear recently on Instagram, dancing the night away with a Congolese pop star and the president of Equatorial Guinea.

The president of that nation, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has granted Mr. Jammeh refuge. Extradition would be difficult.


Since he left, Gambians have tried to put their country back together. Part of that process has been the truth commission, an 11-member body charged with examining the regime. It is not a trial, but rather an investigation. At the end, the commission will make recommendations as to who holds the greatest responsibility for atrocities, and the attorney general will decide whom to prosecute. But a major point of contention is that some perpetrators will go free in exchange for their testimony.

The country’s attorney general, Abubacarr Tambadou, said it was his decision to push for the live streaming of the testimony.CreditYagazie Emezi for The New York Times

The goal of the hearings, said Abubacarr Tambadou, the attorney general, is to negate “a sense of disbelief in the country,” about the facts of the last two decades. The reality, he went on, is that to get to the facts — and to the worst offenders — some smaller players will have to be given amnesty.

Governments around the world have used truth commissions to investigate painful histories for decades. But early inquiries, like the one in Argentina in 1983, following the Dirty War, often happened behind closed doors, with a report made public afterward.

It is only more recently that technology and political pressure have pushed officials to open these commissions. South Africa, in 1996, after apartheid ended, allowed video cameras inside its hearings. Radio has also played a role. Then came the internet.

In recent years, other countries have begun experimenting with live streams, including Tunisia and Colombia, with varying degrees of reach. Part of what seems to have made Gambia’s stream so popular, said Eduardo Gonzalez, a transitional justice expert, is its inclusion of perpetrators. Not all commissions do this.

In Gambia, after years of silence and secrecy left people hungry for information, taxi drivers crowd around TV sets, glued to the testimony. Vendors in market stalls listen through earbuds. Even supporters of the former leader said that they were hooked.

Bekai Saidy, a lawyer, watches the hearings most nights with his friends. “You cannot shape your future,” he said, “if you do not know your past.”CreditYagazie Emezi for The New York Times

The commission is held in Serekunda, outside Gambia’s capital, in a hotel draped with bougainvillea. The streams are run by a national broadcaster and a team of young journalists from the channel QTV.

On a recent day, 10,000 people were watching on QTV’s YouTube page. The channel’s truck, parked in the hotel courtyard, buzzed with a sense of national duty.

“I come from a family of big-time Jammeh supporters,” said Ansumana S.O. Nyassi, 29, a reporter. When the commission began, his own father called the hearings a “witch hunt” designed to malign Mr. Jammeh.

Then his father watched the hearings. He no longer supports the former president, Mr. Nyassi said.

Shortly after the junglers testified last month, the state released them from custody. Mr. Tambadou, the attorney general, said he could not reasonably ask for them to be held without charges. This angered many.

Baba Hydara below a portrait of his father, a prominent journalist who was killed in 2004.CreditYagazie Emezi for The New York Times

“They have to be in prison,” said Ya Mamie Ceesay, 67, whose son was one of the disappeared Gambian-Americans. “You cannot kill someone, take someone’s life, and then go free.”


In recent weeks, a coalition of victims has also questioned some testimony, accusing Mr. Jatta of downplaying his role in one of the massacres.

Because of this alleged lie — a violation of commission rules — victims say he should be put on trial.

If one purpose of the live feed is to put all Gambians on the same page, it’s plain that the country is not there. Months in, deep divisions remains over Mr. Jammeh’s legacy.

In the streets of Serekunda, some said they didn’t believe the testimony.

“I don’t see any use for it,” said Cherno Ceesay, 24. Anyone the regime punished, he added, probably “did something wrong.”

Further out in the countryside, several villages had lined the road with green flags, a show of support for Mr. Jammeh’s party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction.

Abdou Ceesay, left, listens regularly to the hearings. “I listen to know what is right or wrong. People can forgive, but we must know what happened,” he said.CreditYagazie Emezi for The New York Times

In one village, Sintet, Habibou Tamba, 33, said that he had been listening to the hearings religiously. “I agree, he committed crimes, heinous crimes,” he said of Mr. Jammeh.

But Mr. Tamba had been working for the Alliance party for years. It’s where he learned everything he knows about being a strong, confident man, he said. A poster of the former president still hangs in his bedroom.

He believes Gambians should forgive their former leader.

“It’s a man I loved,” he said. And when you love a man, he went on, “it’s hard to abandon him.”

Jaime Yaya Barry contributed reporting from Gambia.

A version of this article appeared on the New York Times with the headline: Now Streaming on YouTube: Confessions From a Presidential Hit Squad in Gambia.

Ethnic cleansing: How US, UN failed South Sudan 

When South Sudan’s Yei region turned violent in the midst of the country’s civil war last year, a handful of U.N. and U.S. officials begged their leaders for help. Government soldiers were burning villages and slaughtering men, women and children, they warned.

Their pleas fell on deaf ears. The U.N. did not send peacekeeping troops to stay in Yei, and the U.S. continued to support South Sudan’s military, possibly in violation of U.S. law, according to an AP investigation based on dozens of internal documents and interviews.

Yei became the center of a nationwide campaign of what the U.N. calls “ethnic cleansing,” which has created the largest exodus of civilians in Africa since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. More than 1 million people have now fled to Uganda, mostly from the Yei region. And tens or even hundreds of thousands of people in South Sudan have died.

Kate Almquist Knopf, director at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the U.S. Defense Department, compared the situation in South Sudan to Rwanda.

“The same thing is happening now in South Sudan,” she said. “It’s happening on Africa’s watch. It’s happening on America’s watch. It’s happening on the United Nations’ watch.”

The U.N. says it is still considering sending a permanent peacekeeping force to Yei if it gets more troops. The U.N. now has about 12,000 peacekeepers throughout South Sudan, but U.S. officials say it would take roughly 40,000 to secure the country.

“It’s all about what resources the mission has available,” said spokesman Daniel Dickinson.

The U.S. budgeted $30 million in aid to South Sudan’s military for the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years and gave further $2 million in July for a military and security operations center. The assistance appears to violate a U.S. law prohibiting support to any unit that has committed a gross violation of human rights. South Sudanese soldiers are accused of gang-raping women and killing people, including civilians and a journalist. The government has denied “ethnic cleansing.”

A spokesperson for the State Department said military officials who received assistance “were vetted and not credibly implicated in the gross violation of human rights.”

However, the U.S. aid is a “red flag,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, who sponsored the law. “The South Sudanese security forces, like their rebel counterparts, are notorious for violating human rights without fear of being punished. We do not want the United States to be associated with such misconduct.”

South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has received more than $1 billion in humanitarian aid every year from the U.S. and the U.N. In 2013, civil war broke out. A peace deal brokered by the U.S. and the international community collapsed in July 2016.

That month, government troops rampaged through the town of Nyori in the Yei region, according to a former local official. Like others, he spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.

He ran into the bush to hide, and returned three days later to carnage.

“I witnessed with my own eyes, young children, they were slaughtered,” he said.

Rose Kiden fled when the soldiers swarmed her house. She said she came back to find her sister on the floor, after being raped by eight soldiers. Her husband was killed by government troops when he went to collect food.

But even as the violence near Yei spread, Kiden said, U.N. vehicles drove by without stopping.

“They didn’t do anything,” she said. “They just passed.”

When U.N. officials visited Yei in September 2016, they were horrified by stories of women gang-raped and a baby hacked with a machete.

“If the security situation is not rapidly stabilized, the protection crisis in Yei will swiftly become a multi-faceted humanitarian crisis,” said a U.N. report from Sept. 15 obtained by AP to the top U.N. leader in South Sudan at the time, Ellen Loj.

After nearly two months, the U.N. started sending small, temporary patrols to the Yei region, but the violence merely continued after they left. On Nov. 11, special advisor Adama Dieng warned about “the potential for genocide.”

That month, the U.N. decided not to send a permanent force to Yei. When asked why at her farewell press conference on Nov. 28, Loj said the U.N. did not as yet have enough troops.

“South Sudan is a big country and we cannot have a soldier behind each and every South Sudanese,” she said.

During another U.N. visit in February this year, a community leader from the Yei area said he had begged for peacekeepers three times in the past few weeks.

“We need imminent protection before it’s too late,” he said, according to an internal report. “If we get killed because we told you the truth today so be it.”

Hours later the U.N. left.

The U.S. also struggled to respond to the crisis in South Sudan, according to documents and interviews. In July 2016, the South Sudanese military fired dozens of bullets into two U.S. embassy vehicles.

Still, the U.S. continued to believe it could fix South Sudan’s military. In September, President Barack Obama sought a “long-term military to military relationship” with South Sudan and allowed military training and education, according to a letter to Congress obtained by AP.

“Once again in South Sudan, we have shown a pattern of having bad analysis, either ignoring the symptoms of the problem entirely, not seeing them, or analyzing them in the wrong way,” said Cameron Hudson, the director of African affairs at the National Security Council in the Bush administration.

The U.S. also got approval from the U.N. Security Council for 4,000 extra U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan, but failed to get the South Sudan government to accept them.

In the fall, a dissent cable drafted within the State Department argued that U.S. support for the peace deal and failure to act was fueling violence.

“The risks of famine, continued mass atrocities, and genocide are among the highest in the world,” the draft cable said. The risks of not changing U.S. policy, it continued, “are immediate and unacceptably high.” The draft was never finalized because it did not gain enough support, and senior officials said pulling out of the peace deal would have created even more violence.

Today, more than 18,000 homes have been destroyed in the Yei region. Hundreds of people have died, and many more have fled.

A pastor from the Yei area at a refugee camp in Uganda said he felt abandoned by the U.N. and the world.

“They could have protected people’s lives,” he said. “They could have saved us from coming to this camp.”